Thursday, April 9, 2020

Lake Manatee is a jewel that shines bright and is lightly fished

This Lake Manatee largemouth bass fell for a Myakka Minnow on a 2-weight TFO Finesse. (photo by John Weimer)

The other day, I told a friend of mine that I was going to head out to Lake Manatee the next morning. I told him he could join me if he'd like.

Must not have appealed to him because he decided to fish a private lake in Venice instead.

No big deal.

He'd fished Lake Manatee one time a year or so ago with little success. So, I doubt he was too excited about the prospects of another trip. Surely a chance to fish a private look had significantly more appeal.

I get it. Most folks who fish Lake Manatee leave unimpressed. She's a tough nut to crack -- to say the least. I'll bet there are more Lake Manatee one-timers than any other lake in Florida.

That's a shame.

I experienced perhaps my best day ever on the lake. And I've had some good ones over the years.
A hefty Lake Manatee shellcracker

I first fished Lake Manatee in the late 1970s. And I'll admit I certainly wasn't very impressed.

"Lake Manatee is very tough to fish," said Bob Popp, who at the time was manager of the old Bass Pro Shop on the north Tamiami Trail in Sarasota. "But she has some impressive bass."

He was right. The old gal can be extremely tough. Reason is the lake isn't your typical Florida "dishpan" lake, with vegetation-covered shorelines. The lake was created in 1964 when a dam was constructed across the Manatee River. The lake/reservoir is used to provide drinking water for Manatee County residents.

Most of the shoreline is not really shoreline at all, but a facade created by vegetation that grows out into the lake. The edges can be 20 to 75 feet from the true shoreline. And under the vegetation is nothing but empty water.

Another factor that affects fishing is the lake's water level. I find it best when the water at the dam (where the measurement is taken) is at 39 feet. That means there's plenty of water at my favorite spots to cast popping bugs for bluegills and bass or nymphs for bluegill, speckled perch, shellcracker, stumpknocker and channel catfish.

When the water drops, that often means spots where I had been catching fish are now only 12 inches or less.  The fish move offshore into deeper water.

You can determine the lake's water level by visiting: 

The lake's level  is controlled by flood gates on the dam, which is located on the western end of the lake. I'm not sure what Manatee County's philosophy is when it comes to determining the water level?

Certainly rain and drought have influence, but who knows what goes on when it comes to the lake's water level?

Although low water can be a pain, it doesn't mean fishing will stink. Witness a trip John Weimer, a Sarasota retiree, and I had in May of 2017. We launched  our NuCanoe Pursuits at the ramp in Lake Manatee State Park. I hadn't fished that part of the lake very much and really knew little about it.

So, we headed across the lake and found some fish feeding in a shallow cove. We cast small popping bugs and had a pretty good bite for about an hour. We caught largemouth bass, bluegill, sunshine bass and a feisty channel cat (a rare catch on a popper).

When the bite ended, I wasn't sure what to do? However, I noticed some disturbances along the shoreline and paddled closer to see what was going on. Turned out, it was big channel catfish "tailing" in the shallows. While they were grubbing along the bottom, their tails would pierce the water's surface. It was then an easy task to present them a fly. We connected on quite a few before the fish left the area.

We found more "tailing" activity just west of the cove. At the spot, we found it easier to "beach" the kayaks, get out and walk along the exposed beach (it was normally under water). Casting Squirmy Wormy flies under a strike indicator, Weimer and I caught and released 17 channel cats from 2 to 6 pounds.

My latest trip was one of my best ... ever!  At dawn, I found some bluegill feeding along a grass edge and caught an half dozen on popping bugs. When that died, I paddled along a grass edge and found an area of deeper water. I expected bluegill, but encountered largemouth bass to 3 pounds. I caught four or five bass, plus a handful of bluegill and a large stumpknocker.

At that point, I decided to give Speck Cove a try. It's an area that has been yielding some really big bluegill and shellcracker. But a funny thing happened on the way to the cove.

I found some "busting" fish and decided to give them a try. I wasn't sure what they were, but what the heck? I was expected bluegill, but found more bass. First cast resulted in a plump 3-pounder. By the time the topwater bite ended, I had caught and released a half dozen bass to 2 1/2 pounds.

That's when I finally head to Speck Cove. I caught a half dozen nice bluegill on a Gibby's Simple Nymph under a strike indicator, but they certainly weren't jumping into the kayak.

This huge channel cat was taken on a 1/2-weight fly rod.
So, I paddled back to a spot  where Weimer and I had done well the week prior. It's a long grass line, but only a third of it had been productive.  The strategy was to drift the productive area and then  paddle back and drift it again. As long as the fish were cooperative, we'd gladly make another drift.
The pattern was the same on this outing -- only better. In addition to some really big bluegill, I caught 10 speckled perch (northerners call them crappie), bass to 4 pounds and a 13-pound channel cat.
All of the fish were caught on nymphs.

And to complicate things, I was using a TFO 1/2-weight Finesse. You're reading that correctly. It's a half weight. Smaller than a 1 weight fly rod.

I've caught a lot of fish on that rod, but I never expected to catch my largest channel cat ever.

Fortunately, when I set the hook after the big cat inhaled the No. 12 nymph, the fish decided to head out into the middle of the lake. If it had headed into the grass, there's no way my 4-pound tippet would with survived.

Still, it was an epic battle. Not only was I taken deep into the backing, I was also close to being stripped. I've developed the ability to paddle and fight a fish at the same time, so I could follow the fish and regain some line. I was able to prevent the big cat from stripping me.

The battle took 15 minutes. It didn't take a genius to figure out it was a big fish, but my eyes widened when I saw the channel cat for the first time. It was the largest I'd ever hooked on the lake.

I netted the monster, removed the tiny nymph and weighed the fish. Slightly more than 13 pounds.

Incredible.

I've caught quite a few noteworthy fish from Lake Manatee.

John Weimer with a Lake Manatee speck
In March (2020), Weimer and I were drifting the north shoreline on our way back to the launch at Lake Manatee Fish Camp. We'd had another remarkable day, with loads of bluegill, shellcracker and largemouth bass. We really did expect much, but the light westerly breeze was moving us along shoreline beautifully.

Weimer was casting a Gibby's Rudy J; I was casting a No. 12 Gibby's Myakka Minnow on a 2-weight TFO Finesse.

We each caught a couple of small fish, but nothing exceptional. I cast the Myakka Minnow, a fly I developed in 2005, to within a inch of the grass line and began to retrieve it. The line tightened and I swear I was hung up on a log or the bottom. I knew that wasn't the case when I felt movement on the end of the line.

"Big fish," I yelled to John, which is our signal to get the camera ready.  "I don't know what it is, but it's big."

I began paddling backwards with one hand and fighting the fish with the other. My goal was to (hopefully) get the fish away from the grass and limbs. I saw the fish flash and really thought it was one of the lake's huge tilapia. But when it made its first jump, I knew it wasn't.

It was a huge bass. It was the largest bass I'd ever taken on fly. It was beautiful.

But how could I land it on such diminutive tackle? Would the tiny, No. 12 hook hold? Would the 4-pound tippet be strong enough?

I didn't know, but I would give it my best effort.

The fishing gods were with me that day. The tiny hook and light tippet survived six jumps and a 10-minute fight. When I was finally able to net the bass, I was amazed.

I've caught a pair of trophy bass in my life. I caught an 11-pound, 9-ounce largemouth from a pond in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., in 1975. I caught a 10-4 bass from Sarasota's Cowpen Slough in 1979. But those came on spinning and baitcasting tackle.

This bass was my largest on fly rod. I'm not sure how much it weighed, but I'd guess 7 pounds or more.

Other memorable Lake Manatee outings include the day Weimer and I combined for 30 big speckled perch on nymphs (our record). 

And there's the time I caught a 6-pound tilapia on a 1-weight TFO Finesse (also on a nymph).

I got to video Weimer fighting and landing a huge tilapia that he got on a Myakka Minnow.

Noted fly fisher Joe Mahler of Fort Myers and I had an unforgettable day when we didn't land a big one. It was Mahler's first trip on Lake Manatee. We paddled under the State Road 64 toward the south shoreline. I'd been getting some nice bluegill there.

We started casting along the shore, but our plan was interrupted by some big bass feeding on golden shiners behind us. You could see shiners frantically leaping from the water, trying to escape the big bass in pursuit.

We cast what we had in our hands as quickly as we could. I was using a No. 10 popping bug. I don't remember was Mahler was casting, but I'm sure it was equally as ridiculous for big bass as my tiny bug.

We both hooked up immediately. I don't know how large my fish was, but I couldn't stop it. The hook didn't do a good job, either. It pulled. I hooked three more huge bass (and lost each one) before the melee ended.

It's my opinion that Lake Manatee isn't a great bass lake. At least that's what I've found. I think there are some huge bass in the lake, but they're not easy. I believe you have to be opportunistic.

During spring and fall, you'll often find schools of hefty bass busting shad in the afternoon. Shad will rise to the surface to feed on plankton when the water warms up in early afternoon. You can often witness the blowup from the bass.
The author with a nice tilapia taken on a 1-weight TFO.

I've found it's tough to get close enough to cast. My strategy has always been to paddle to the general vicinity, then sit and wait. Sooner or later, fish will move close enough for you to make a cast.
These usually aren't trophy bass, but solid 3 to 5 pounders.

The lake also has some hefty shellcracker (redear sunfish). I was told years ago that you can't catch shellcracker on popping bugs. The Lake Okeechobee guide who gave me that sage advice probably should have told me that I couldn't catch very many shellcracker on popping bugs.

On a recent trip, I caught two nice shellcracker in a row poppers. Later in the day, I caught four more shellcracker, including one that weighed more than a pound, on my Gibby's Simple Nymph. Most of my shellcracker are caught on nymphs.

That leads me to my freshwater strategy. I'm like most other fly fishers; I love to catch fish on the surface. So, I usually started out with a No. 10 popping bug. And I'll fish it as long as I'm catching fish. That can be from 20 minutes to several hours. I let the fish tell me what to do.

When the topwater bite ends, I usually switch to a Simple Nymph under a strike indicator. This is my go-to combo on Lake Manatee and other lakes around the state.

When I first started fly fishing, all I used in fresh water was popping bugs. And when the bite ended, it was time to go home.

That all changed when I discovered nymphing.  That discovery took place while fishing for trout in northeast Georgia with guide Rex Gudgel out of Unicoi Outfitters in Helen, Ga. We were doing well on nymphs, catching rainbow trout to 27 inches. That's when the proverbial light bulb started glowing in my head.

"If trout love nymphs, why wouldn't Florida panfish?" I thought.

My plan was to give it a try upon return to Sarasota.

I ordered a dozen Hare's Ear Nymphs from Orvis and the odyssey began. Not only did the nymphs work, but they worked wonderfully! I started catching more fish than ever. And I caught some large fish.

After a while, I start tying my own. I didn't tie Hare's Ear Nymphs, but an adaptation that I created for myself. I call it the Gibby's Simple Nymph. It's a bead-head nymph with a pheasant tail and dubbed body.

It's quick and easy to tie. And it catches loads of fish.

The best fishing at Lake Manatee takes place fall through spring. I don't fish it much in summer because that's the time I'm usually walking the beaches, sight-fishing for snook in the surf.

Lake Manatee is located off State Road 64 west of Bradenton in Manatee County. It's nine miles east of Interstate 75.

It's close, easy to get to and, most importantly, lightly fished.

If you haven't fished Lake Manatee, you're missing out.

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